Schools and the Internet

Recently, for some reason or another, schools, parents, and the media have found out about teenagers habits on line and are beginning to use their postings as leverage against them (see this MSNBC article: “District to monitor students’ MySpace pages”). Mainly, these issues revolve around one site, Myspace.com. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anybody who posts material on line on a semi-regular basis, uses a search engine, or understands how the Internet works. With the arrival of search engines like Google, MSN, and Yahoo!, it is fairly easy to find personal information for people who wish to post it on line. And, if you put it all in one place, like Myspace.com, it’s made even easier to find. Now, where this information gets used can sometimes be disturbing (see NBC’s To Catch a Predator series), enlightening, and informative.

What is now happening is that some schools are beginning to use the Internet as a tool to look over their students. Now, this is a very fine line in my opinion. I think that everybody is entitled to free speech… to a degree. I think that you shouldn’t be afraid to voice your opinion about something, but on the same token, you shouldn’t be in a crowded area and cause panic for no reason at all. I think it is appropriate to praise or criticize things you find right or wrong. However, I have a problem with schools and their sudden overbearing approach to the Internet and the idea of the students that their information on line is somehow private. Needless to say, it’s a very delicate issue.

I think schools have the right to protect their faculty from harm. If a student says on their site that they are going to do something to a teacher, action should be taken. I’m comfortable with that since somebody’s life could be in danger. But, when it comes to spying on students seeing if they are breaking a conduct code… that’s where I get shaky. Part of me says, you stupid kids and part of me says, you overbearing school. So, it’s really a toss up for me.

Having been in sports and performing groups in high school I know the rules that you must agree to abide by to participate. It’s basically a code of conduct. This code of conduct applies not only to the times you’re actively participating in the activity, but your out of activity life as well. So, if I’m out some night drinking and I get caught, I get reprimanded by the district. That’s what I agreed to in order to participate. Not only that, it’s against the law to drink under the age of 21.

So, enter in the students who don’t quite understand the Internet… they post pictures of themselves on line participating in such activity. What happens now? If the school finds it do they reprimand them? I think that it’s not outside of their bounds to do such. I only say this because people seem to be naive to the fact that lots of personal information can be found on line… largely on sites like Myspace.com. These students don’t all completely understand that. They can say, “don’t look at it… that’s my personal space”. But, last time I checked, anybody who had access to the Internet can view your page… unless you hide it, password protect it, or remove it.

As for the schools, I don’t think they should be actively looking for this information. Leave the over barring spying to the parents. That’s part of their job. However, if a school gets a tip about something that was found on line, I think that it is not outside the bounds of the school to look into the issue. But, active monitoring of their students outside of school is a little over the top for me. The problem is that this is not going to go away anytime soon. There is not silver bullet to fix it or to provide understanding on both sides. I think more understanding just needs to happen on both sides. People need to realize the power of the Internet. It is not like the school is breaking into your house, finding that shoebox under your bed with the photos in it. Some students move this shoebox to the Internet for everybody to see. I have a hard time siding with students in that case. If you want privacy keep it in the box under your bed.

Do I then feel bad for these students? Not really. I think it’s a lesson that everybody needs to learn at some point. If it’s high school, that’s not the end of the world. You could later in life be fired for what you put on line a la dooce.com. So, it’s a very fine line on what you put on the Internet for everybody to see. This goes for blogs, photos, or anything else you could author on line. Really, I think that people have this aura of privacy that they think they deserve when they are on line. But, I beg to differ. When I blog this entry, it will be cached in multiple places and I will not have the opportunity to get it back, ever. That’s the risk I take for putting my thoughts on line. At the same time, it is rewarding to be able to write and to have people read it. It’s a trade off that I am willing to make and will continue to make.

So, for these students, it’s a tough break. If they are concerned about something that might cause them trouble, you have a couple of options, hide it on line, or don’t post it at all. There are very few fences to hide behind on the Internet and many of these can be jumped over to still get at that information you wish to hide. I mean, how many of your friends on Myspace do you really know? If you really wanted to be safe you wouldn’t post anything at all. But, what’s the fun in that?

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